Famous Female Entomologists Part 2: Anna Botsford Comstock
This is Part Two of a five-part series on Famous Female Entomologists, in honor of the 32nd Annual Insect Fear Film Festival (February 28, 2015), the theme of which is Female Entomologists. (Part 1, Part 3, Part Four, Part Five)
By Andrea Kautz
You may know her as the talented wife of John H. Comstock who illustrated her husband’s written works on entomology, but Anna Botsford Comstock (1854-1930) was herself a champion of entomology, especially with respect to nature education and conservation as an author, artist, and educator.
Born into a farming family in Otto, New York in 1854, Anna grew up as an eager and excited learner who chose to further her education beyond high school, which not many women did back then. She began her university education at Cornell in 1874, studying language and literature. While there, she also happened to take a course on invertebrate zoology which was offered by none other than Professor John Henry Comstock. She became interested in the topic and began to spend time with John while they studied the plants and animals of the area together. During this time she tried her hand at insect drawings, which John would use for his lectures and publications.
The two were married in October 1878 and moved to Washington, DC in 1879, when John became the chief entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She served as his assistant and gradually became known as a talented naturalist and nature illustrator. In the 1880s, after she and John moved back to Cornell, she learned the skill of wood engraving, which she used to illustrate her husband’s well-known textbooks, An Introduction to Entomology and A Manual for the Study of Insects. Her artwork brought her much praise, and she was inducted into the honor society Sigma Xi and into the American Society of Wood Engravers as one of the first female honorees of both organizations.
By the mid-1890s, Anna had begun to strike out on her own and make a name for herself in the area of nature education. She devised curricula, trained teachers, wrote pamphlets and books, and became an advocate for nature study in the classroom. Her hard work earned her the position of assistant professor of nature study at Cornell in 1897, the first female professor in Cornell’s history. She went on to gain full professorship in 1920 — after some controversy over being female — and even continued to lecture after her retirement in 1922.
As a professor, Anna was a very prolific author, writing many books on nature education and conservation, including How to Keep Bees, Trees at Leisure, Insect Life, and her most famous book, The Handbook of Nature Study (1911), which was well used by elementary school teachers around the globe until the 1940s. So great was her contribution to this area that in 1988, the National Wildlife Federation named her the “Mother of Nature Education.”
Anna may have initially attracted the attention of the scientific community by assisting her husband during his prominent career, but she showed a clear passion for nature studies and made a notable career for herself by writing, illustrating, and teaching. Through her work, she undoubtedly encouraged many young students to discover their own appreciation of the natural sciences and to study them for themselves.
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Andrea Kautz is a graduate student in the Gardiner Lab at The Ohio State University, studying under Dr. Mary Gardiner. She is interested in long-legged fly (Diptera: Dolichopodidae) community ecology and their role as biological control agents in vegetable crops. She is graduating this August 2015 and is keeping an eye out for future employers!